- US colleges and universities should do more to address the climate crisis, experts say.
- Several colleges have opened schools focused on climate, sustainability, or the environment.
- One survey said commitment to sustainability affected the decision to apply for 75% of respondents.
Universities and colleges are an important part of the US economy, and they’re increasingly seen as key players in the global race to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
Experts say these institutions have a responsibility to be leaders in sustainability because of their endowments, employment levels, public funding*, significant real-estate holdings, energy use, and research resources that touch a variety of sectors.
Climate-action groups like the International Universities Climate Alliance and Second Nature also want colleges and universities help facilitate more solutions by sharing their knowledge and enabling innovation, through their advocacy efforts, as well as more effective research on climate science and related fields. And students themselves are demanding more awareness about the environment.
Each year, colleges and universities deploy billions of dollars for building upgrades and maintenance, food, transportation, energy, research, and education initiatives. Then there are institutional investments on behalf of their endowments.
Higher-education institutions can have an even greater influence financially, culturally, and socially in towns where they are the largest employer, as is the case with Arizona State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Pennsylvania State University.
After more than 650 universities and colleges pledged to reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions to net zero by early 2018, more comprehensive sustainability strategies have been implemented that go far beyond installing bike racks or vegetarian offerings in dining halls. Shifts in spending include upgrades to reduce water and energy use, better recycling and composting programs, the purchase of electric vehicles, investments in clean energy, and the sale of fossil-fuel assets.
But experts say there needs to be greater participation and research on climate from colleges and universities across the country, not just from the largest and most affluent institutions, which should lead to faster action on identified solutions.
Developing academic programs and opportunities – focused on topics like urban planning and environmental science – is another way to increase the focus on sustainability on campus, according to BestColleges, a website that issues an annual ranking of “greenest universities.”
Arizona State opened its department focused on sustainability in 2006. Other universities and colleges like Columbia University, Stanford University, and Loyola University Chicago have also recently opened departments focused on climate, sustainability, and the environment.
A college or university’s sustainability strategy can also make a huge difference in recruitment. The college-services company The Princeton Review found 75% of its 2021 survey respondents (up from 66% the previous year) said “having information about a college’s commitment to the environment would contribute to their decision about whether to apply to or attend the school.”
Conversations at universities and colleges may still center on the rising cost of tuition, campus life, and whether students will get their essays in on time and make it to graduation. But an increasing number of administrators, students, faculty, and staff are realizing sustainability needs to be a much bigger focus, one that needs active investment and attention for the long term. After all, there will be no classes, no labs, and no future for the business of higher education if the planet becomes inhospitable to human life.
*While many universities and colleges in the US are private, they still benefit from public funds through federal or state student loans, federal research grants, and state grants for academic programs.
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